Arsenal's Stingy Defence Can Win Them a League Title

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Arsenal's Stingy Defence Can Win Them a League Title
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

All those who have ever said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger ignores the defensive side of the game are choking on those words this season.

It is a stingy defence that has Wenger's current side at the top of the English Premier League. If they win the league crown, that same defence will be the reason why.

The Gunners kept another clean sheet last Saturday. A 2-0 win over Fulham marked the 10th time Arsenal have held an opponent scoreless in the EPL this season.

Wenger's men have surrendered the fewest goals in the league this term. Their defensive excellence is the defining feature of their success so far.

There are many reasons for this newfound solidity. The most obvious is that Wenger has patiently assembled a group of talented defenders.

Towering centre-back Per Mertesacker continues to make a mockery of his critics. His obvious lack of pace has yet to undermine the Gunners. It is also more than compensated for by precision tackling, excellent positional sense and a natural air of authority.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press
Mertesacker is the standout performer at the heart of the EPL's best defence.

In the opinion of this writer, Mertesacker is by some distance the best defender in the league this season. But if he is leading the way, veteran full-back Bacary Sagna is a close second.

Sagna's return to form has made a resolute defence even stronger. At peak fitness, Sagan knows no equal at his position. He is a complete defender, equally formidable on the ground and in the air.

Like Mertesacker, Sagna has confounded the naysayersthose who felt he was finished after a subpar 2012/13 season. Never mind that Sagna broke both his legs in the previous campaign and could not realistically be expected to immediately return to his best.

Those who wrote off Sagna after his injury problems were clearly afflicted with what will now forever be known as "Aaron Ramsey syndrome."

While Sagna has simply reverted to type, left-back Kieran Gibbs has made rapid progress. The young defender is now more assured and accomplished at the back.

Sang Tan/Associated Press
Not many get past underrated left-back Kieran Gibbs.

There is a composure to how Gibbs plays and that command of his emotions is letting his natural athleticism take over.

The final member of the meanest back four in the land serves as a reminder of the dangers of doubting Wenger's ability in the transfer market.

When Laurent Koscielny joined the club in 2010, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Wenger had snared him from French club FC Lorient after just a single season of Ligue 1 football.

But after enduring more than his share of rocky moments, Koscielny has become almost as important to the Arsenal cause as Mertesacker.

What has made Koscielny better this season is curbing his reckless habits. In the past, he has gotten into trouble by needlessly lunging into challenges.

Now he is noticeably calmer. It has changed how he approaches his role along the Arsenal back line.

While Mertesacker steps out to make the highlight-worthy contributions, it is Koscielny who acts as janitor, sweeping up anything that still gets through.

Via smart transfer business, faith in the promise of youth and relying on an old war horse, Wenger has created a perfectly complementary back four.

The Gunners now have the ideal blend of pace, intelligence, vocal leadership, calmness and tenacity. Every member of this defence relies on the other for balance.

A steady back line has certainly helped those immediately in front and behind it. For the latter, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has experienced a career rebirth.

Szczesny is no longer the careless youth who seemed to save calamitous errors for key moments in games. While he has still not completely shed his cavalier ways, there is no denying Szczesny is better than he was a year ago.

Like Gibbs, a touch of calmness has allowed Szczesny's physical gifts to shine.

Of course, Szczesny and those in front of him also get by with more than a little help from their friends. That help starts with players like Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini.

Wenger uses either of these hardened veterans to shield the defence. This is a familiar tactic from a manager so many have wrongly claimed ignores defensive realities.

Gilberto Silva was the buffer between defence and midfield during Wenger's best period at Arsenal. Before him, Frenchman Emmanuel Petit was a de facto third centre-back.

While supplementing his back four with a deep-lying midfielder is familiar stuff from Wenger, Arsenal's team approach to defending is new.

It's at this point where the Wenger critics would have you believe that anything good about Arsenal this season is due entirely to assistant manager Steve Bould.

While this narrative is incredibly insultingnot too much utterly wrongone noticeable difference has emerged since Bould became Wenger's second in command.

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger have worked together to craft a renewed commitment to defensive solidity.

Simply put, there is a more ordered, recognizable structure to the way Arsenal defend. While they press more from the front, they also drop greater numbers behind the ball in deeper areas.

It is a balanced approach to stifling teams at both ends of the pitch. In previous seasons, Arsenal's approach to defending could be dubbed the "headless chickens strategy."

Everything was chaotic and seemed to rely on brilliant individual play to negate attacks. Now this team defends more as a unit. It is not just at the tactical level, but also at a psychological one.

A key word that describes Arsenal's defensive renaissance, which really started in the latter stages of last season, is accountability.

Players, especially those of the forward-thinking variety, are held accountable for the successes and failures in defence. When Arsenal bested Aston Villa 2-1 on January 13th, they conceded because of a casual and ill-advised piece of play from Santi Cazorla.

No sooner had Villains striker Christian Benteke headed into an empty net that Mertesacker was roaring his disapproval in Cazorla's direction.

That was unlikely to be the last of it. It is easy to imagine to Mertesacker and the other members of his defence taking Cazorla to task after the game.

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Attack-minded players like Santi Cazorla are held accountable for their role in Arsenal's defensive shape.

That establishes a culture that lets every member of the team know they are responsible for the defensive record. It is a mindset Arsenal have needed for a while.

It doesn't matter if Lionel Messi performs a triple somersault over Mertesacker's head followed by the Karate Kid crane-kick to burst the net at the Emirates Stadium.

Every goal conceded should be taken as an affront to a proud back four and a team committed to defensive integrity.

Some bright spark is already typing in the comments section about Manchester City's six-goal salvo against Arsenal in mid-December. While that was alarming, the Gunners have stood firm more than they have relented this season.

They held Liverpool, with their awesome strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, scoreless back in November. At the start of September, they blanked Tottenham Hotspur, who had spent the deficit of a small country beefing up their squad.

In late December, Arsenal weren't breached by a Chelsea squad containing enough attacking midfielders and supporting strikers to form their own feeder club.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Arsenal have thwarted some of the EPL's best strikers this season.

It is also important to remember that a poor defence is one likely to collapse against even mediocre opposition. Arsenal blanked Fulham last Saturday, but they conceded three to largely the same team in the same fixture last season.

While Wenger has always valued defending more than his critics have claimed, solidity at the back is not the first thing you associate with one of the pioneers of attractive and daring attacking football.

However, this defence-led Arsenal is a different animal. While they can still produce classy combination play, if the Gunners do win this EPL title, it will be via graft and defensive resolve.

It is a reality that almost casts them in the role of spoilers next to City's free-scoring beauty and Chelsea's individualist power.

With the way Arsenal's back four is leading a team committed to defence, the Gunners could spoil their way to Wenger's fourth league title.

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